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It’s not easy being a heel in pro wrestling in 2016. Crowds seem so conditioned to root for the anti-hero that the bad guys come off as far cooler than the squeaky clean baby face. With kayfabe taking a backseat to reality, heel performers spend more time trying to get over than drawing animosity from the crowd. Smart crowds tuned in to the inner workings of wrestling find it hard to boo the bad guys, and instead cheer them for a job well done – a move that’s counterproductive to the stories being told in ring. This week I want to take a look at two of Smackdown’s heels, and see what sets them apart right now.
1ST EXAMPLE: DOLPH ZIGGLER
We’ve hit week three of the Dolph Ziggler heel turn, and this week showcased a different side of the hair metal enthusiasts character. Ziggler’s cast aside his brash, cocky and outspoken demeanor. In it’s place was a much more brooding and smug persona that put a heavy premium on the spoken word. In the case of Ziggler, his turn is going to hinge on less being more. For seven years now, whether he be a heel or a face, Dolph’s schtick boiled down to him bouncing around the ring like a super ball injected with a triple shot of espresso. While Ziggler owns a high degree of athleticism, he insisted on moving from spot to spot and wrestling the same style of match whether he wanted to illicit cheers or boos.
The pinball routine can’t work if Ziggler is going to go where he needs to as a heel performer. After years of seeming to be on the cusp of a big push only to be dragged down, Dolph has stretched fans’ patience to the point where they’re bored by him. While you can question whether or not this past week’s King’s Court segment was in poor taste, it did its job in establishing Ziggler’s heel bonafides. It certainly did a much better job of accomplishing this task when compared to whatever stream of conscience ranting promo Dolph delivered on the prior week’s Smackdown.
If Ziggler can translate that slowed down, sparse promo style to a more methodical and calculating ring style, he has a great chance of reinventing himself. Instead of being a spot monkey who is happy to thrill the crowd, Ziggler should slow it all down and wrestle with a mind geared towards an economy of movement. With a career filled with false starts and sputtering momentum, along with Dolph’s own inability to adapt his in ring style or character, this turn represent his last chance to shine in a big program. If Ziggler can’t make this new persona work, then it’s time to cut bait and use him to make newer attractions with more upside look great.
2nd EXAMPLE: A.J. STYLES
On the other side, you have your heel world champion, A.J. Styles, who never has to worry about looking great in the ring. The problem with Styles is he’s a heel champ on a heel-heavy show whom fans simply refuse to boo. Styles is on record saying he needs to do a better job getting heel heat with the crowd. It could be that fans respect his body of work too much or are so thrilled that the possible best professional wrestler in the world is holding the most prestigious title in the industry, but Styles still hears more cheers than boos in every building he works in. Creative doesn’t do Styles any favors when they set up an impromptu match with Styles and The Miz. Now you have a heel on heel dynamic with one guy working as a classic pure heel that everyone loves to boo, and your champ heel that everyone loves to watch kick ass. Let’s face it, dear reader, The Miz was born to be a bad guy, and he owns the perfect smug countenance that is made to get punched hard and punched often.
This week’s Smackdown put an eye towards the next program away from the Rumble while also setting up a way for Styles to lose the title and putting the mechanisms in place for his WrestleMania program. With Shane announcing that the winner of the Cena and Styles match at the Rumble will defend the strap a mere two weeks later at Elimination Chamber (let that settle in for a moment folks), it’s easy to see a beseiged Styles unable to fend off five challengers. From there it looks like a ticked off Styles will cry foul at management, setting up a Shane vs. Styles WrestleMania showdown.
At this stage the WWE should either give the fans what they want and turn Styles face, or double down on A.J. as a bad guy and make him as despicable as he can be.
As good as Smackdown is, it suffers from being a heel-heavy show with only two pure singles babyfaces: Ambrose and Cena. It makes for a paucity of compelling match ups and the crowd wind up gravitating towards cool heels. On a brief side note, Randy Orton suffers from this as well, but his fix seems easier. Drop the RKO. Don’t do it and tell fans you’re not going to do the move because they don’t deserve to see it. Modern fans that are conditioned to get what they want, when they want will turn on him. Orton should put the move in his back pocket for six months, and when it becomes time to turn him face again, break it out and listen to he crowd blow the roof off the building. For the show to build on its success since the brand split, it’s going to need some new match ups as the build to WrestleMania gets underway. While I have doubts, if Ziggler can embrace a new persona, he could work as a heel. That leaves room for a top babyface and with all the cheers and adulation he receives, Styles is primed to step into the top babyface roll for the company. All Vince and company need to do is pull the trigger and let the inevitable happen.